Day 9: Heartless
On Day 9, DS players will get down to the actual meat of the tutorial, while 1.5 players will get down to the thin, text-only summaries that replace much of the tutorial. In fact, 1.5 spends the next five days in a text lacuna, interrupted only by Mopes, which are themselves, also text. As a result, much of this section will be brand new to fans that are only familiar with the film, even if it is very basic.
For your second mission, Saïx pairs you up with Marluxia, and you head off to Twilight Town with orders to “collect Hearts.” Marluxia is extra-special polite to you, and clearly intrigued. It doesn’t take much insight for a veteran of CoM to realize he’s trying to vet Roxas to decide if he can use Roxas to take over the Organization instead of Sora. To be frank, I’m not entirely certain why he doesn’t! Marly later says something about his plans being too far along to include you, but we’ve seen the kind of effort Marluxia goes to in hopes of capturing Sora – it’s kind of hard to believe he’d rather do that than just hang a carrot in front of zombie Roxas’ face! Like an actual, literal carrot. This kid would work for anything at this stage.
Your introduction is interrupted by the arrival of a pack of Shadows, and Marluxia directs you to destroy them. Roxas gets straight to it, which is a little bloodthirsty, but you know… video games. Combat in Day seems very similar to previous games in the franchise at the basic level. The first difference is the fact that Roxas essentially has Combo Master at all times, so he can continue his combo even if he misses. This probably had a good deal to do with Mission Mode, since there are characters in this game who can be imprecise compared to Roxas, and besides, it would be salt on the wound if you lost your combo because someone else stole your kill. Second, Days is also the only game in the series where you can’t automatically Block enemy attacks by hitting them with your own attacks… at least, not by default. This requires a special ability called Offensive Block, which isn’t very easy to find, or even recommended. By making Offensive Block an ability instead of default, I suspect that the devs were trying to cut down on the number of network events the game would have to deal with in multiplayer. It’s not the last time we’ll see multiplayer impact the single player game… in this post.
I’ll have more to say about combat as we go, but for now let’s return to the tutorial’s brief plot. Roxas asks about the Heartless, and Marluxia provides a completely inadequate explanation, which is the first of many clues that suggest to me that Square Enix didn’t expect all that many new players to be introduced to the franchise with Days. Marluxia does reinforce the division between Pureblood Heartless and Emblems. He says “don’t bother” with the Purebloods, though I’d argue that this is bad advice at this point in the game, when you’re still trying to learn the fundamentals! What he’s supposed to be saying is that Purebloods don’t count while you’re on a heart collection mission, like this one, but the issue is that you still don’t know what you’re doing and don’t know anything about the mission types, or how this one differs from them! Roxas is outright complaining about these things, so you think devs would notice the problems he’s complaining about!
Conveniently, some curious Yellow Operas arrive on scene while Marluxia is still talking. He tells you that these are your real targets. Operas are the weakest Emblems in Days, and are rapidly forgotten as the game rolls on – which is nice of the devs, given that the game dynamically levels your enemies based on the mission. That means Operas could have placed as any enemy in any stage, which would have been super boring. Unfortunately, we’ll still be seeing the same Purebloods from the start to finish, but I guess this is better than nothing… Returning to the matter at hand, the Operas behave much like they did in KH1 and CoM, in that they still fly around, strike you with lightning, the works. This is unusual for Days! Generally speaking, Days has some noticeably different AI on almost all the enemies it borrowed from previous entries, and it usually renames and recolours them in the process. Only a small handful of enemies like Yellow Operas or Soldiers were left with fundamentally unmodified brains.
Now that you’re fighting fliers, you’ll notice a few more differences between Days’ combat and the combat in previous games. For starters, Roxas’ attacks have very small hitboxes and slow swings to boot. It’s not at all like the wide swings of KH1 and the rapid attacks of KH2. This was probably, once again, the fault of multiplayer, both to cut down on network events and to make it so characters like Lexaeus had a demonstrably larger attack hitbox than Keyblade-wielding Roxas. In terms of the game’s speed, we’re back to KH1’s slow and deliberate controls, except that enemies aren’t as strategic as KH1 to compensate. In fact, some of them are so simple that they only seem to have one or two AI routines to their name, which is something that we can once again probably credit to multiplayer.
Roxas’ attack animations are also less dynamic than Sora’s ever were, and feel more “bottled” than the animations in KH1 and 2. There are fewer if any dynamic transitions between attacks, which was something KH2 was brilliant at. Now, initially – meaning, when I first drafted this Retrospective – I suspected that this “bottled” approach may have been done to smooth the network code, which still seemed to make sense alongside all the other multiplayer-related decisions we’ve been seeing. The bottled attacks would dramatically simplify things when up to four people were flinging attacks, magic and projectiles and goodness knows how many Heartless. It makes sense. But then something weird happened, and I realized it while I was revising: the canned attacks never really went away after Days!
The canned attacks continued to be used by Kingdom Hearts not only in Days, but in BBS, re:coded and DDD. Granted, BBS also had its form of multiplayer, but coded and DDD certainly didn’t. What’s funny is that the canned animation problem was gradually ironed out across the games, even though it was never eliminated outright. The fact that each of these games were developed for portable systems is probably at fault – maybe I shouldn’t be blaming the network code so much as the DS, PSP and 3DS? In any event, people seem to hate the stiffness of the controls and gameplay in these games, especially Days, the prototype. This is understandable. It’s a precipitous fall from KH2’s excellent UX, and doesn’t even feel fully in line with KH1, which was slow, sure, but never janky. Unfortunately, the problem is at worst here in Days. If KH2 was the accumulation of minor narrative problems, Days is the accumulation of moderate gameplay problems, and after a while, one starts to stand back, worried that it might reach critical bullshit and explode.
There’s another change you might notice that also get peoples’ hackles up, although you probably won’t notice for a few missions yet. In KH1 and CoM, once you’ve overcome the tactical vulnerabilities of your foes, they die very quickly. In KH2, enemies are vulnerable at all times, but still die relatively quickly. In Days, enemies do not die quickly. Instead, enemies are what’s called “HP Sponges” or “Bullet Sponges.” These are enemies whose HP bars go on and on and on, forcing you to swing at them over and over in a crude mockery of legitimate content. Osaka team is far too fond of this design pattern, I suppose we should have seen the warning signs in FM+’s bonus bosses, but those were supposed to be hard and it was less obvious as a result. While the HP Sponging leads to a style of play some might not like, it’s not really a general-purpose problem until Challenge and Mission mode, so that might be a relief to some.
Days also largely inherits the multiplayer game problem where enemies rarely flinch, another problem that sadly continued into the later portable games even though this time it definitely feels like a multiplayer thing, since that’s how MMOs behaved in 2009. Enemies ignore your attacks and continue to behave as if they weren’t being ripped apart by weapons. Days chooses to have them react only to your finishing attacks, if at all, probably because it would be too easy to stun-lock between two players in multiplayer, ala River City Ransom. Unfortunately, this too continued after BBS, which once again seems like a matter of descent rather than practicality. Maybe they just weren’t thinking about it when they got to re:coded?
The unfortunate, combined effect of these myriad, inadequate combat systems is that Days is a game where you often miss attacks that seem like they should hit, enemies barely lose HP when you hit them, and enemies often don’t seem to notice when you hit them, either! What a mess!
You might be wondering why I’m stating all of this outright, rather than seeding it throughout the Retrospective like in KH2. The fact of the matter is that Days is simply up-front about its faults. KH2’s gameplay faults were matters of context, and only revealed themselves through examination and years of exposure, like a building not built up to code. Days, meanwhile, is like a building with bricks and gargoyles cracked off and lying in the street. Only extensive examination will prove which building suffered more damage in the long term, but Days’ faults are immediately evident.
That said, Days’ combat may be better than the sum of its parts, even if that doesn’t necessarily make it… good. I went back into this game for my Retrospective playthrough expecting to hate it, and at times I really did! But for most of the run it was less bad than I remembered? Like I said during KH2, this was one of the games I didn’t get bored of during my Retrospective playthrough. I think it’s because there are more tactical options in Days than there may initially seem… but you have to plan ahead for them. We’ll keep talking about these sorts of things as we go. I guess you get to pick your poison: if you don’t like games where your character feels ineffective, you might not like Days. If you don’t like games where you feel ineffective as a player, you might not like KH2. If you don’t like either, you go see a dentist about how you’ve grinded your teeth flat playing this series. That can’t be healthy.
Back to the story. Marluxia points out how the Emblems released hearts when you killed them, and says that fetching those hearts is your primary job. Roxas asks how you do this, and Marluxia accidentally misleads you by saying that only the Keyblade can harvest hearts, which I imagine confused a few new players when it came to using magic. But again, this game doesn’t seem to have been designed with new players in mind. This is also where the game explains mechanics called Heart Points and Chaining, but I’m going to hold off on those until the next mission, as I feel Chaining makes a little more sense there as there’s actual distance between your enemies. You’ll understand in a minute.
You clear out some more Operas, and Roxas starts gaping at the Keyblade. We get a closeup shot of the weapon, which may be the first time you notice that the Keyblade is a flat 2D sprite attached to Roxas’ 3D hand. This is true of every weapon used in this game, probably for network concerns (yet again), and it looks just as stupid as it sounds. But don’t worry, before the game is done, it will have plenty of opportunities to make it look even stupider.
In a closing Mope, Roxas points out that he doesn’t know what a “heart” even is, or why anybody cares. This is no small problem, but like I just said about the 2D Keyblade, Days will find a way to make it far worse. Why should I start talking about it now when the game will demonstrate on its own in just a few minutes?
Day 10: Incomplete
Mission 03 sees you visiting the Tram Common with Zexion. There’s no one around, even though this is nominally the busiest part of town. And while I suppose that empty towns are a given after KH2, Days will frequently imply the Organization is a stealth operation, which if you think about it, implies that there should be people around? You know… for the Organization to avoid? I actually appreciate the developers limiting the stealth elements, because the few stealth missions we will be seeing in Days don’t work very well (same as most action games), but it’s hard to feel like you’re part of a stealth operation when you never come across another living being through 95% of the game, in the middle of the afternoon.
Today is another heart collection mission, and Zexion finally explains what exactly that means by giving a short list of other mission types, like reconnaissance. It isn’t a very comprehensive list (so I won’t repeat it here), but he does give you a missing piece of the gameplay puzzle: he explains that you’ll be collecting Hearts in all your missions, so in a manner of speaking, a heart collection mission is just the game’s “normal.” It’s the cave that connects one continent to another in an RPG, or the hallway filled with boxes in an FPS. You know: the most boring kind of content in the game. It’s basic filler, but like that cave or hall full of boxes, the game might occasionally surprise you and spring a new element when you weren’t expecting it. What can I say? A game can benefit from establishing a status quo.
During a Heart Collection mission, your objective is to explore the available parts of the game world and defeat every Emblem Heartless you can find. It’s hide and seek: you run out, find them all, and run home. Each Emblem you kill will fill up a bar at the bottom of the bottom screen. Once the bar reaches a point marked with a white line, you can RTC.
Very little is actually introduced in this tutorial (hell, the Emblems don’t even hide, waiting for you pre-spawned and even marked on the map!), which is another reason why I put off the explanation of Heart Points and Chains to this entry, just so I’d have something to talk about. Heart Points are a sort of currency Roxas earns on top of Munny. In fact Heart Points function more like how you’d have expected Munny to work in any other game, whereas Munny can only be used to pay for synthesis. It’s also worth noting that Heart Points exist only as currency. They are not part of your default objectives. When the Organization asks you to “Collect Hearts,” they don’t actually care how many Heart Points you earn: they want you to kill Emblems. It’s very confusing, as the concepts are introduced in the exact same missions. If the game wants you to get Heart Points, it will specifically ask for Heart Points – which, to cut to the chase, it will only do in the game’s Challenge feature.
If you do want to maximize your Heart Point earnings – and since they’re essentially money, you might as well throw in a partial effort – you’ll want to use the Chain feature, indicated in the upper left of the top screen. A Chain starts when you kill a Heartless (even a Pureblood), and then begins to slowly count down. You can renew the timer by killing another Heartless. Until the timer exhausts, any Emblems you kill will give you a boosted Heart Point rate, +1 for each Emblem in the chain. This means the first Emblem you kill will give you +1 heart point on top of its base value, the second +2, third +3, and so forth. There are also a few special abilities that only trigger during Chains. That’s nice and all, but one of the few lessons you learn in this tutorial with Zexion is the bitter reality of Chains: sometimes you just can’t take them with you. Even if you plan your best, sometimes enemies are placed just too far apart!
Part-way through your mission, you’ll encounter a new enemy: Dire Plants. These are Creeper Plant recolours which only have the ability to shoot seeds ala CoM, with none of the root attacks from KH2. You can deflect these seeds with Block once you unlock the Block ability, which is worth the trouble since the deflected shot will kill the Plant instantly. Oh, and don’t forget, you can’t play baseball with them, Zelda-style, without the Combat Block ability!
Zexion follows you around while you attack, which you’d think might be a good prompting for me to explain partner AI, but there’s not much to say. Your partners can attack and cast spells, typically spells you’ve already learned, athough very, very early in the game they seem to have that spells you don’t. Elementally-themed characters like Larxene and Axel will stick to Cure spells and spells from their respective element, but other teammates don’t seem to have this restriction. For example, because there isn’t a water spell line, Demyx uses all sorts of air spells instead! Your partner can teleport to your location if you get too far away, same as in previous Kingdom Hearts games, but this ability has a much shorter trigger range than in previous games, so expect to see your partner zipping and zapping all over the map, especially when you do platforming. Later in the game, you get the option to adjust partner AI, but the default will serve for most of the game, depending on whether or not you choose to do mid- and late-game Challenges. Should your partner die, they’ll wake up after a short delay, not unlike KH1 and 2.
After you’ve filled the bottom bar to that white mark I mentioned, Roxas talks to Zexion, and Zexion chastises Roxas for giving up so soon. It turns out that in many missions, you can fill the mission bar past your minimum requirements (the white mark), until the bottom bar is completely full. Zexion says that the Organization will reward you for getting 100%, but he doesn’t explain what that means… in fact, no one ever does. This feature is never explained and despite multiple play-throughs, it’s only thanks to the research involved in this Retrospective that I understand it at all.
Essentially: each mission has three Clear Bonuses, which are prizes listed by Saïx when you accept the mission. The first two prizes are automatically received after you complete the mission, but you only earn the third bonus if you fill the mission bar to 100%. You think they’d mark the bonus prize as being the “100% Prize” or something to that effect, but they don’t. If you miss the opportunity, you can replay the mission later in the game, so it’s not a huge loss.
Unlike most heart collection missions in the game, Mission 03 spawns a new group of Heartless after you clear the minimum requirement. I personally find this confusing, since it’s so at-odds with the rest of the game! For goodness’ sake, this is the tutorial! Stop presenting things as “normal” that aren’t normal!
After you go to RTC, Roxas asks Zexion about Kingdom Hearts. Zexion explains what a Nobody is, how they lack hearts, and that Kingdom Hearts will make the Org members complete. Unfortunately Roxas doesn’t have his memory, and so he doesn’t understand what it means to have a heart, or what he could possibly be missing! Naturally, this will be hard to explain to him, but Zexion wins mentor of the year by refusing to clarify anything to Roxas at all. The Organization, if you haven’t gathered, are dicks. And not playing very intelligently with their human resources…
This retrospective’s screenshots come from RickyC’s longplay of the DS version of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days at World of Longplays (YouTube), and from Brian0451’s recording of the 1.5HD cinematics of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days at World of Longplays (YouTube).